On April 27th, North Korean Kim Jong Un stepped across the border from North Korea into South Korea to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and shake his hand. When Moon told Kim that he wished to visit North Korea someday, Kim invited him to take a step over the border and into North Korea, which Moon did. This small gesture was the beginning of a meeting where both leaders would discuss two potentially historic events: a formal peace treaty between both countries (ending the state of war that has existed between them for more than 60 years), and the full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Both leaders smiled for the cameras, took part in a tree-planting ceremony, and even sat and talked at a picnic table near a bridge, recently painted a vibrant shade of blue, in the demilitarized zone. Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in were given space to speak with each other over an agreement on denuclearization. “They drink tea and they shooed the cameramen away and it’s just the two of them — and it struck me, they speak the same language,” Yonsei University historian John Delury told NPR, “They don’t need interpreters.” The day was rife with imagery of two powerful men coming to an agreement. Even President Trump had to take a moment and tweet about the momentous occasion, saying “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”
As the two leaders entered the Peace House to begin their summit meeting, they stopped to shake hands. The moment prompted applause, leading Kim to remark, “It feels embarrassing to be applauded just for shaking hands,” according to Anthony Kuhn, International Correspondent, Beijing, China for NPR. Kim quickly asked, “Did that make for a good picture?” bringing laughter from the audience of journalists and others. “I am very proud to say that I pay tribute to the bold and courageous decision taken by Chairman Kim,” Moon said at the Summit, which took place in the border village of Panmunjom. Kim added to this statement, saying “We have long hoped for this moment to arrive.” The leader of North Korea continued to express his optimism about the meeting, saying: “We are not people who should be confronting each other. We should be living in unity.” Kim signed the official guestbook of the Peace House, writing “New history starts from now, at the historic starting point of an era of peace.” The event seemed to permeate an air of optimism at the thought of unity and peace between North Korea and South Korea.
After Kim signed the guestbook, however, a scene that seemed to portray a sense of paranoia and distrust played out. As the leaders left the Peace House, North Korean security began wiping down the desk, chair, book, and pen with sanitizer and scanning the area with electronic devices. Reporters were told by a South Korean security guard that the team from North Korea was checking for recording devices or explosives, according to Kuhn. Was this just a routine security check, conducted as the two leaders left to have lunch and plant a tree together? Perhaps, but it seemed to be a reminder that peace talks between the two countries have occurred in the past, but a solid agreement has never come to fruition.
The first such agreement occurred on July 4th, 1972, when South Korean officials met with Kim Il-Sung to discuss unification. While both countries appeared to agree to terms, they were unable to move forward with them due to political instability on either side of the border. Similar agreements were also approached in 1992, with the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Similarly to 2018, both countries attempted to move forward on full denuclearization. However, as terms were never met on either side, the agreement never entered into force. In 2000, the North-South Joint Declaration was drafted and signed by Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-Jung. The text of the declaration called for reunification, but it was later discovered that North Korean officials were paid to attend this summit. A similar meeting was held in 2007 that upheld the 2000 declaration, however, relations between the two countries were never fully repaired. Aggression and hostility continued to build between North Korea and South Korea. The 2018 summit has already received its share of criticism, mostly aimed at the idea of denuclearization.
While the Panmunjom Declaration makes mention of denuclearization, it does not do so until nearly the end of the document. In addition, it does not offer any specific steps to achieving that goal, according to CBS News. The dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program was the topic of discussion while Moon and Kim sat by the bright blue bridge in the demilitarized zone. They claimed it was there that they reached an agreement on how denuclearization would be made possible, however, the language in the declaration was not specific. It did not mention time frames or actual stages of denuclearization. As such, North Korea could potentially still keep its existing nuclear arsenal while discontinuing further production. Kim would also not say specifically what he and Moon had agreed to in regards to denuclearization. Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North (an online journal focused on North Korea), told NPR “I think the South Koreans did what they needed to do to make this significant, yet not too overreaching.” A more pessimistic view has also been put forth by Kang Cheol Hwan, the executive director of the North Korea Strategy Centre. He told NPR: “Until now, North Korea has lied, and the lies have worked on people who want to believe North Korea intends to give up its nuclear weapons. But I don’t think that’s the truth.”
It remains to be seen what will come of the latest summit between North and South Korea, but history will decide if this latest declaration of peace, unity, and denuclearization will stand the test of time. South Korea has already taken steps to meet its end of the agreement. They dismantled speakers that had been set up along the border to blast propaganda and music (mostly K-pop) into North Korea. Similarly, North Korea has also dismantled its own speakers which were used to blast their own propaganda messages into the South. While this demonstration of diplomacy illustrates a step in the right direction, it’s a far cry from full denuclearization, which may need to be discussed further if President Trump is able to meet with Kim Jong-Un personally. Similarly, South Korea will keep roughly 29,000 U.S. troops stationed along the border, despite their withdrawal being a condition from North Korea for denuclearization, according to a report from CNN.
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